Monday, December 14, 2009

New Film: Invictus

Clint Eastwood's Invictus, from an Anthony Peckham screenplay of John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, does what the director's films do as a matter of routine: it reinforces a relatively discrete set of authorial concerns - sufficient in their proximity to the director's biography to earn the contested tag of personal - while uniquely embodying the zeitgeist of its making. Invictus, in this last respect, provides a seismic reading of America in at least its early 2009 production phase, that is of a nation - with a dubious racial past - fresh off its election of its first African-American president. Eastwood's film, however, while conscious of the singularity of this achievement in both nations, does not stop at the meretriciousness of Mandela's election, but rather showcases his wisdom in ruling the entire African nation of 41 million, both black and white alike. The director and screenwriter's Mandela preaches forgiveness and reconciliation, even when most of his own racial and political faction would seem to prefer justice in the form of revenge (always a subject for late Eastwood). Ultimately, the implied connection between Mandela and Barack Obama stops at their election, with the life of the former becoming for the latter proscriptive rather than a descriptive comparison. Invictus is thus, however loosely, the cinematic equivalent of the President's Nobel Prize.

That Eastwood emphasizes Mandela's (played very ably by Morgan Freeman) outreach to the defeated white minority, in his defense and advocacy of the Sprinboks rugby club (captained by Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar), a lingering symbol of apartheid-era South Africa, illustrates the former's extraordinary political aptitude, while underscoring the picture's present-day implications. That is, Invictus projects a hope in unity rather than in racial and especially factional division (which is very much in keeping with the campaign-trail Obama of the film's 2008 pre-production phase). In this way, Invictus conveys the optimism of the defeated, not a surprising tact for the libertarian-leaning former Republican mayor and John McCain supporter, even more than it does the joys of the (formerly oppressed) victors. Eastwood shows this clearly in the sudden excitement of South African sandlot soccer players upon the news of Mandela's release and in the literal periphery of the Pienaar family maid for most of the film; importantly, Eastwood stages the former scene contradistinctively, with camera movements and the director's signature cross-cutting (a strategy that obtains throughout this sports movie) serving to compare the soccer players' celebrations with the rugby teams' ruminations on the "terrorist's" release. Mandela's actions win over both the Sprinboks and their mostly white fan base, lending to the film's generally hagiographic tone.

Nevertheless, Eastwood and Peckham do suggest the leader's troubled personal life, and especially his estrangement from his daughter, which beyond providing some balance to their treatment of the former president, places Invictus within the thematic current of the director's more recent corpus, following on the similarly themed True Crime (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Likewise, Eastwood's concluding underlining of Mandela's age and declining health rhymes with the director's previous Gran Torino (2008), with which it also shares its racial emphasis. Still, as accomplished as Freeman's performance is in Invictus, Eastwood's latest suffers in comparison to Gran Torino by virtue of Eastwood's scene-chewing absence in front of the camera, which enlivened the 2008 release. Analogies of quality aside, Invictus proves to be the biopic, Eastwood-less Bird (1988) follow-up to Gran Torino's supremely entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

Invictus likewise shares Gran Torino's overly-exaggerated symbolic and thematic exposition, the 2008 picture's greatest deficiency, which in the former film most egregiously manifests itself in Eastwood's concluding Christ-pose. In Invictus, the picture's use of cloyingly obvious pop songs and an extended, heavily cliched penultimate slow-motion passage (made necessary in part because of his decision to cut between the action on the rugby pitch and the reactions off) rate as unmistakable lows. In other words, Eastwood's conventionality, one of the great late classicist's biggest strengths, becomes a weakness. Nonetheless, the strengths of Invictus certainly outweigh its flaws, from Eastwood's perpetually skilled direction of actors and his classical storytelling (save for the aforementioned, unnecessary accents) to again, its clear expression of 2008-2009 American public thought. (In this latter respect, Invictus succeeds in besting the less historically precise Gran Torino.) With Invictus, Eastwood has made yet another cogent entry into his most American of contemporary canons, in spite of its non-American subject, providing a film that is neither among the best nor the worst of his pictures - not unlike a late, artistically minor if thematically significant John Ford such as The Last Hurrah (1958); Eastwood's official stature makes him the modern day equivalent to the master, as does his robust sense of his country of birth - but one that is nonetheless fully his.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A James Whale Triple Bill: The Impatient Maiden (1932), By Candlelight (1933) & Sinners in Paradise (1938)

Warning: the following post contains some spoilers.

Renowned mostly for the all-time horror classics he directed for Universal studios (Frankenstein, 1931; The Invisible Man, 1933; Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) and claimed as one of the queer cinema's unimpeachable Hollywood icons (see Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, 1998), James Whale nonetheless maintained a slightly less marginal status than either of the above distinctions might suggest. Serving as one of (the admittedly quite marginal) Universal's top two house directors - the other being John M. Stahl (Back Street, 1932; Magnificent Obsession, 1935; see Thomas Schatz's studio history in The Genius of the System, 1988) - Whale made a number of Universal's most prestigious entertainments (including the aforementioned "A" horror films, which are routinely mistaken for "B" pictures) and expensive productions of the period, culminating in the studio's definitive musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's Show Boat (1936). As this latter project would suggest, Whale, though recognized even at the time primarily for his horror films, did manage to work outside of the genre, both following his 1935 cycle apogee Bride of Frankenstein, and even in the midst of this output, as he would in the equally strong, and similarly ignored The Impatient Maiden (1932, Universal - pictured) and By Candlelight (1933, Universal).

Though ultimately an earnestly nuptial-affirming romantic melodrama, The Impatient Maiden nevertheless manages more body-blows on the institution of marriage than perhaps any other work of the era. Studio starlet Mae Clarke plays lecherous divorce attorney Albert Hartman's (John Halliday) leggy, nineteen year-old secretary, Ruth Robbins, who from the film's outset professes her utter distaste for marriage, which Whale confirms in both the numerous on and off camera rows that provide white noise for Clark's picturesque San Francisco surroundings and in the leering of a male client who fixes his gaze, indifferent to the objections of his wife, to Clarke's stockinged legs cropped on the left edge of the frame. When Ruth is finally proposed to by resident physician Myron Brown (Lew Ayres in a solid male lead performance that holds the screen with Clark's compelling work), following a series of phone calls and even a touching midnight visit - Whale's leads exude a genuine, recognizable humanity in this work - she declines, opting instead for the instant material rewards of Hartman's slimy company, in spite of the protests of Alabaman roommate Betty (Una Merkel) and the latter's boyfriend, gentleman nurse Clarence (Andy Devine). As with By Candlelight, the lure of money must be overcome for love to obtain.

Ironically, Betty's deep south accent becomes the source of much playful derision from Devine's Clarence, in spite of that actor's legendarily singular speech pattern. In fact, The Impatient Maiden provides more than its share of humor, whether its Ruth's barbed protestations against the institution of marriage, Betty's boundless stupidity (often and cruelly remarked upon, not that she ever understands), Clarence's invention of a zip-up straight-jacket with an easily anticipated flaw or he and Dr. Brown's gambling over whether their patients will survive. In at least the final two examples, Whale and screenwriters Richard Schayer, Winifred Dunn and James Mulhauser import a gallows humor that very much maintains the spirit of the director's horror corpus, as do the zombie-like patients of the hospital's psych wing, the x-ray machine that Brown uses on Ruth and lastly the belated appendectomy that the doctor performs on his love interest. Much more than By Candlelight, The Impatient Maiden belies the signature of a horror maestro.

Whale's hand is likewise visible in the picture's highly fluid mise-en-scène, where Whale's camera incautiously passes through a series of walls at Ruth and Betty's low-class residence. This teaming, working class hovel provides a striking contrast with both Hartman's art deco penthouse, in which Ruth is set up, and with the residence of Prince Alfred von Rommer (Nils Asther) in the subsequent By Candlelight. In the latter, butler Josef (Paul Lukas - think a less confident variation on Maurice Chevalier and Herbert Marshall's characters in Ernst Lubitsch's period work) abets his master's Don Juan tactics (Josef and his female counterpoint, Elissa Landi, both read the famous Lothario's memoirs), performing a ritual for the Prince's continuous, married visitors that includes a well-timed presentation of champagne and an even more precisely orchestrated tripping of the circuit. After discretely removing himself to his adjacent quarters, Josef further rehearses the Prince's witty come-on's into a mirror.

Josef's play-acting as the Prince soon becomes public after a mistaken identity leads a presumed countess Marie (Landi) into believing that he is Rommer. This misapprehension leads the formerly disinterested female to become the romantic aggressor, thus reiterating The Impatient Maiden's romance for material reward equation; likewise, the final revelation of identities will require the valuation of love over money with which Whale also concluded the former film. In the meantime, with Josef doing his finest Prince Rommer impersonation, the pair share an afternoon and evening in a rural fair and wine garden, before reuniting in the Prince's residence with the latter ostensibly gone for the evening. When the gentleman returns to overhear Josef's impersonation, the Prince completes the reversal of roles of his own accord, even carrying out the loss of power that is his personal trademark. Naturally, the characters' true identities are discovered (after the film's Cinderella loses one of her shoes), leading to a denouement that manifests the clockwork precision of Viennese operetta (which Ruth claims to like in The Impatient Maiden; little does she know, evidently, that a lecture by a Viennese physician is nowhere near as engaging).

With The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight, Whale employs characteristically long, graceful follow shots within narratives that move briskly toward an affirmation of love over material reward. In the director's Sinners in Paradise (1938, Universal) these qualities are largely absent, though love naturally remains triumphant (even if it is not, in this case, challenged by wealth), following an incipient passage that introduces viewers to each of the soon-to-be-shanghaied travelers, many with explicitly hidden identities, at an airport. With the camera, first, mostly constricted within a trans-Atlantic seaplane whose interior seems closest in design to a railway dining car, and then with the narrative, second, equally static once the crash's survivors land on a tropical island - essentially we wait, for the film's very slight 65 minute running time, with the passengers for their departure from the island - Sinners in Paradise does not sustain the director's principle narratological virtues.

The British-born director, however, reveals the same class consciousness (here especially in the ironic, if heavy-handed protests of a millionaire factory owner, Charlotte Wynters, that she is being mistreated after doing the same to her workers) that appeared in both The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight, while recasting his politics within immediately pre-World War II terms: namely, Sinners in Paradise preaches a need to confront rather than hide from one's problems. In this light, the film's egalitarian island society appears less socialistic (cf. Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You, also 1938) than adherent to the social strictures of the military. While Sinners in Paradise thus offers a clearer picture of Whale's and writers Harold Buckley, Louis Stevens and Lester Cole's pre-war politics, it nonetheless lacks the visual and narrative virtues of Whale's best work, which is to say that it is an unmistakingly minor iteration of his art.

The Impatient Maiden and By Candlelight are, on the other hand, not only exemplary of the director's storytelling gifts and thematic interests - Whale belongs with Capra, Lubitsch, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg and very few others as Cahiers du cinema-brand, early sound era auteurs - but testify to the director's exceptional dexterity in working outside of his horror specialization.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Decade in Film, Iranian Cinema Suppliment: Shirin (2008) & It's Winter (2006)

On this site's recent survey of major cinematic achievements of the current decade, reader R. Emmet Sweeney questioned the omission of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin (2008), which has been made newly available by the British Film Institute in a region-2 format DVD that the distributor released in late October. Following Mr. Sweeney's elegant appraisal of the film for Movie Morlocks, where he claimed that the picture is "the first major work from [Kiarostami's] experimental period, and perhaps its logical endpoint," a phase that I should add I largely lamented on the aforesaid post, and thanks to the agreeably low cost of the import disc, Kiarostami's latest became the obvious first choice for my inevitable self-revision following the earlier piece. Thus, to move directly to this writer's verdict regarding its fitness in being classified among the significant works of the current decade, I would concur with Mr. Sweeney that it absolutely does, and also that it likewise marks a notable improvement over Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), even if I cannot maintain as does the Morlock author that this is "the most moving experience I’ve had watching a Kiarostami film." Personally, the director's 'Koker trilogy' and Through the Olive Trees (1994) in particular, remains for me not only the filmmaker's supreme accomplishments, but also his most emotionally impactful art as well.

The ultimate success of Shirin, as Sweeney rightly notes, is in the director's elaboration of off-camera space, which it bears noting has been long central to the filmmaker's formal strategies. In Shirin, Kiarostami shoots over one-hundred separate women, all framed in close-up while wearing headscarves, in a darkened movie theatre. Subsequent to a title sequence in which the director introduces us (through pages of an illuminated manuscript) to the subject of the screened film, the epic poem "Khosrow and Shirin," Kiarostami fixes on his human subjects for the full duration of the projected film's un-spooling; that is, the filmmaker never once reverses field to the picture that his female spectators (along with the small number of male viewers visible likewise over their shoulders) watch. As Kiarostami's camera trains motionlessly on their faces, we hear music, voices and ambient sounds all emanating from the off-camera screen. Thus, the filmmaker not only establishes the presence of the visually absent screen, but intimates further, through the competing panoply of the aforesaid sounds, a space that is itself the combination of both on and off-camera fields - a spatial mise en abyme.

In suggesting an off-screen, on a screen that is itself off-screen, Kiarostami further expands the space depicted in his cinema, which as always far exceeds that which the director captures with his camera. Again, as always, Kiarostami constructs the space of his film to insist on its relative minimality in contrast to the non-visible world beyond the edges of the frame, where he articulates a world unseen through characters who fail to appear on camera (as in The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999) or, as in Shirin, by a film-within-the-film that never appears on film. It is a reality forever consigned to invisibility by dint of its lack of visual materiality, save for its instantiating audio track. And for the light that implicitly dances off the screen, on to his female figures' faces, modulating the space with the changes in tone that appear on the non-existent screen.

Importantly, Shirin's off-screen film-within-the-film reads as both strongly narrative and heavily dramatic - two properties that Kiarostami's unbroken series of spectatorial close-ups lacks entirely; "Khosrow and Shirin" is a film that the director would never make - at least in the conventional form that it seems to maintain. Then there is, once again, that which Kiarostami does shoot, the hundred-plus female faces that his narrative alternates between as they watch a fictional film (with the incumbent gaps between the off-screen film's narrative and the reactions they generate essentially ex nihilo; there is thus an artificiality to the experience presented by the feature, which Juliette Binoche's sudden appearance further confers). Indeed, in choosing intimate framings of (almost exclusively) strikingly beautiful women of a variety of ages, Kiarostami undermines the logic of the mandatory coverings that all of the women wear, namely to reduce focus on the physical attributes of women. Just as Shirin is a film about invisible cinematic space, absent presence, it is also a work about women, about making their interiority visual through the act of performance, and of its calculation to bring mentation to the face's surface - even as Kiarostami rehearsed his actresses to emote less. Ultimately, in its feminine focus, Kiarostami's latest continues the more political emphasis of the director's superior Ten (2002), while reaffirming that the baseline of minimalist modernist cinema today rests in close-ups of the human face - see the director's Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2006) and Wang Bing's Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007).

Rafi Pitts's highly imagistic It's Winter (2006), from a Mahmoud Dowlatabadi story, ranks with Shirin as an additional, deserving Iranian film of note that was overlooked in this writer's previous survey. It's Winter's heavily mythic narrative details a husband's departure for greener economic pastures abroad; his presumed death and replacement by a second, itinerant labor; and finally, the second husband's financial problems, which lead him to contemplate further migration - along with, spoiler, the return of the first husband. Pitts routinely elides process in his compressed presentation (78 mins.) of his arch-narrative - as for instance in the narrative's leaping from the first meeting between the second husband and wife, in a moment reminiscent of the subsequent In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007), to the bestowal of a gift by the gentleman, to an inaudible conversation between the two, and lastly to their civil wedding - while favoring moments of dead-time, which thus places Pitts's film in the tradition of Kiarostami's earlier, poetical narrative works.

Indeed, It's Winter's narrative elisions and visual evasions serve to allegorize life in a nation where so much remains hidden from view (a strategy that is equally evident in Shirin's compendium of head-scarfed female spectators). However, unlike the visual minimalism of Kiarostami's latest, though very much in the spirit of the director's previous Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us and Five, Pitts's work is landscape dependent, expressing meaning through the locational, seasonal and temporal specificity of its visually rich exteriors - as for instance in a lyrical, early frame in which the first husband walks down a deserted highway in the eponymous season, or in the heavy snowfall that descends upon the village's railroad tracks, which Pitts composes in a diagonal long. This is a work where the absences are primarily narrative rather visual.